Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Medium Is The Massage

Perhaps the first thing recognized in Rafael's article was its inherent similarity to Iran's experience with Twitter, how foreign media outlets declared the 'revolt' the "coming of [cell phones, Twitter]. But any deep comparison can't really go too far; cell phones and Twitter are both different services and transmit information in different ways, positing different relations between users. We can get past this problem nicely by borrowing from McLuhan's notion of "extended senses"; the Twitter coders originally decided upon the 140 character limit in order to allow those txting tweets to have 20 characters in which to add certain metadata (such as defining a direct message); Twitter was even initially posited as a mere "extension" of texting, by creating a central location (an information landscape, a formless community) which indexed all tweets.
The nature with which Twitter builds off of txting could make for a very interesting topic, but it'd remove itself quickly from Rafael's arguments. So, let's look for similarity between them by trying to find what remains constant in both Iran and Filipino.
The images of Filipinos gathering in the streets painted by Rafael are almost exactly the same as those of Iranians gathering in the street; Filipinos had cell phones and cameras, Iranians had Twitter, video recorders, and internet uplinks (complemented by cell phones and cameras, of course). This idea of the crowd, of the "messianic without the messiah" is almost exactly the same in both. Yes, there is some external authority, legitimizing the revolt (the church in Filipino, Mussavi in Iran), but once that initial act of formation has been performed, the crowd takes on a life of its own. Characters wander the streets, each armed with archiving devices recording footage that reaffirms their revolt and asserts their connection (it's here worth noting that difference again appears in the particulars: Flor C. is merely swept up into the crowd, her photography an (apparently) spontaneous act, one that is not even shared with the rest of the crowds (perhaps limiting its potential power); in Iran, the masses of archivers undertook a premediated and dangerous act, their every photo potentially holding power if they succeed in avoiding the police searching for such devices and transmitting their images to the outside). In Filipino, it's a black sea; in Iran, it's a green sea.
There's definitely something to be commented on in the metaphor of "sea"; its intended meaning clearly refers to the expansive, boundry-less field constituted by the sea, but also (by accident) refers to a Cosmopolitan zone, "International" waters. There's a lot to be dissected here.
But let's move in a different direction for now, and think about Rafael's assertion that these crowds are "medium," the quote inspiring my reference of McLuhan. Rafael defines medium as "a way of gathering and transforming elements, objects, people, and things." McLuhan's medium are the extensions of the senses, technology that has an impact on society; in addition, this media can be somewhere between hot or cold, enhancing one sense or demanding interpretation on the part of the viewer. My problem with McLuhan has always been his insistence on the separation of senses, ignoring the logical vertex at which the senses assimilate into the mind, but that's not a discussion for now.
Rafael is aware of his dissonance against McLuhan ("we might think of the crowd as not merely an effect of technological devices, but as a kind of technology itself"), but seems to hit a sudden juncture with McLuhan's love of the "Global Village" crated by Television as he describes his medium: "the crowd takes on a kind of telecommunicative power, sending messages into the distance while bringing distances up close. Enmeshed in a crowd, one feels the potential for reaching across social, spatial, and temporal divides."
But, as Rafael points out, this "reaching across" is limited; the poor are excluded from this middle-class socialist dream. What Rafael doesn't mention is that the rest of the world (those existing across the sea) is also excluded; the Filipinos are covered by foreign reporters, but People Power II makes no premediated attempt to reach out to "the world." Perhaps this is because of the limitations of text messaging; those with free texting are (I assume) limited to those also on their network, and (therefore) those within their own country; the dissemination of the original message is clearly bounded. What's at stake when, as in Iran, this boundry suddenly disappears, evaporated by the global span of the Internet? But also, what's at stake in letting this image of the "global village" distract us from other differences (class, race, etc.) not being transcended?

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